Monday, February 16, 2015

Unpub 5

Unpub is a game convention where designers of unpublished games can have them playtested by the random strangers who show up for the convention. The designers pay a fee to have a table at the convention, the playtesters get in for free. Since this year's Unpub (the fifth one) was held at the Baltimore Convention Center (which is about 20 minutes away from our home) I decided to be a random stranger and try out some games so new they haven't hit the shelves in any stores yet.

The game floor

The first game I tried was a light card game called Mail Order Mutants. Five wealthy, anonymous buyers want custom animals, like a Flying Komodo Squirrel or a Deadly Fire Newt. Players are mad scientists mixing various animal DNAs (insect, lizard, fish, mammal, avian) to meet the orders. Different cards from the gene pool have either individual or sets of DNA. Each scientist can draw from a pool of already formed bits or draw new DNA or splice together the critters they already have in order to match the buyers' orders.

Mail Order Mutants in action

I enjoyed the game. Putting just the right combination together is tougher than it initially seems, so there's a thinky bit to the game. But it's not so thinky that you have to plan moves and moves ahead in order to do well. The custom animals have different point values based on how many different DNA components go into them. It's a fun, quick card game.

Next, I tried Bad Medicine, a party game where players work in teams of two to pitch pharmaceuticals to the other players. Play starts with a symptom or side effect, like Violent, Uncontrollable Twitching. Player one on the team is dealt six cards and has to formulate the drug. He comes up with a name for the drug (a combination of three of the cards), characteristics of the drug (two cards), and a side effect of the drug (one card). Each card has a syllable on the top for the name (like FLOR or ZAN), one or two words in the middle of the card for characteristics (like NERVE ENDINGS or FUR), and a side effect on the bottom (like CAUSES BONES TO BECOME MAGNETIC). Player one puts the cards in an order they think best. Player two then flips up the cards and pitches the drug to the other players, describing how it cures the symptom and why the side effect isn't so bad. After the pitches are made, everyone votes on the best drug (not their own). Points are awarded one per vote and the side effect of the winning drug is the new symptom to be cured by the next drug. Roles rotate so the formulator becomes a pitchman and the pitchman becomes a formulator for a different player. After four rounds, whichever individual player scores the most points wins.

Bad Medicine table

I liked the game well enough but it is not my style of game. Players have to be in the right mood for it to work well. Our table did fine but I could see this also dragging with the wrong people or in the wrong setting. The game is light-hearted and moves quickly.

Next I played Cattle Car, a two-player game where two ranches compete to get the most cattle to market. Each player starts with equal hands of cards--three farm hands who take the cattle into town, Ma and Pa who can bring new cattle to the ranch from the Bone Yard, and a Cattle Call that will bring all the cattle back from town to the ranch (rather than getting discarded to the Bone Yard). Players move cattle into town and then either move the cattle onto the current train or use the cattle to buy townsfolk to add to their hand. Cattle on the train are victory points but sometimes the trains get filled up or there are no trains at the station. The townsfolk give special abilities, like the Cowboy who can move five cows directly into town or the Salt Cart which can send opponent's cows to the Bone Yard before they even get a chance to go to town. The townsfolk cost one to three cows based on how powerful their powers are. Players take several rounds to get as many cows shipped as possible.

I enjoyed the game but a bunch of the cards weren't as valuable to me. One townfolk, the Station Manager, lets a player look at the next three train cards, which didn't seem that strategically important to me (but maybe with more experience its relevance would be clearer). The game is fairly new in the development process and is on it's way to being even better.

Next was Santa's Workshop, a worker placement game much like Lords of Waterdeep. Each player has a set of elves who work at the Northpole in Santa's Workshop, building toys during the last twelve days leading to Christmas. The elves can collect resources (like fabric, wood, metal, plastic, or coal), feed reindeer for bonuses, craft presents, select new presents to build, or go to the classroom to get better at building presents or collecting resources. Each player also has a mine cart to store coal. Players get points for building various toys, like a boomerang or a bb gun or a drum or a paint set or etc. More complicated toys require more resources but give more points. Every fourth day there's a "Santa's Review" where whoever built the most toys gets a bonus. The second most also gets a smaller bonus. It's a race to build the most valuable toys in the shortest amount of time.

Santa's Workshop

I liked the game a lot (probably better than Lords of Waterdeep) but the designer said that the theme is going to be a hard sell. He talked with a published designer who thought that publishers will probably shy away from a game that looks like a kids' game that will be priced in the $30-40 range. Parents probably won't spend that much money on a game and regular gamers may be turned off by the theme. That's a shame because it is a wonderful game where the theme and mechanics mesh nicely and it plays with enough simplicity for older kids but enough complexity to satisfy older gamers.

My final game for the day was Pass the Paint, a card drafting game where players are apprentices to Renaissance artists. Players start with six card, each having one color on it (either a primary color (yellow, red, blue), white, a secondary color (orange, green, purple, pink, light blue), brown, or black). They pick one card to put down in front of them and pass the rest of the cards to a neighbor. Everyone reveals their choice and then chooses from the five cards passed to them. Play proceeds until all the cards are gone. Players are also dealt four commission cards, each with an individual Renaissance painting and certain color icons needed to score that painting at the end of the game. Instead of playing a color, a player could discard the color card to get an additional commission. A second round is played with a deck that has more secondary colors than primary. The game also includes end of game goals (such as having the most cards of primary colors or the most completed commissions) or palette goals (have six particular colors in front of them). Victory points are tallied at the end for sets of colors, commissions completed, and special goals achieved.

Pass the Paint in action

The game appears to be simple but has a lot more subtlety to it. In addition to teaching about color mixing (a player can't play the green color until he has blue and yellow already in front), the Renaissance art is a nice selection from major painters with their names and the names of the paintings on the card. Playing is an interesting balance of trying to get extra victory points from the goals and the commissions. I liked this one a lot.

I packed a meager lunch so I'd have more time to play and not bother with leaving the convention center to get food. I had a bottle of water, an apple, and two slices of bread. I finished the water and apple but the "nothing" sandwich didn't get finished.

Lunch leftovers

I did get a medicine bottle full of M&Ms at the Bad Medicine demo table, of which I ate half. I also got some free swag (mostly promo card for already published games) just for participating.

Brochure and free swag

In addition to providing direct feedback to the designers after playing, the convention had some tablets set up for playtesters to give additional feedback. Every couple of hours, they'd randomly select a name from those providing feedback and the winner got to choose from some games donated by various companies. I didn't win any of that but was happy to provide feedback.

It was a great experience and I hope they will have the convention in Baltimore again next year!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the kind words about Santa's Workshop! I haven't given up on the theme quite yet. I'm going to get in front of a few more publishers first, and see if I get more of the same feedback. We'll see...there are a couple of options if publishers are still wary of the theme. But again, I appreciate you coming out to Unpub, and thanks again for the nice review!